INFORMATION ENVIRONMENTTucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin and the Pernicious Myth of the Free Market of Ideas

By David Wroe

Published 28 February 2024

The so-called free market of ideas asserts that if we encourage all points of view into the digital town square and let them thrash it out according to the natural laws of competition, good ideas will flourish, and bad ones will sink. The wrongheadedness of this idea needs to be called out.

Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s interview this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin showcased a seductive but dangerous myth.

Carlson got the reaction he deserved from most mainstream foreign affairs commentators: ridicule at his Dorothy Dixers to a master manipulator of information and narrative. Over two hours, Putin systematically hit his talking points aimed at turning MAGA supporters and similarly disgruntled European voters against Western support for Ukraine.

Many of Carlson’s fellow populist conservatives, meanwhile, backed him on the grounds that the Western public will be better informed, and hence better able to judge their governments’ policies on Russia and Ukraine, if we hear from all sides. By letting Putin talk freely, they argued, Carlson filled in a piece of the picture that was missing. Audiences could then judge for themselves.

If it were just one sacked cable host fawning before a dictator, it wouldn’t be worth all the talk. But the pernicious myth from which the episode drew its strength has a much wider base. It is the so-called free market of ideas, whereby we encourage all points of view into the digital town square and let them thrash it out according to the natural laws of competition. Good ideas will flourish, and bad ones will sink.

Elon Musk cites the free marketplace, or what he terms ‘ free speech absolutism’, as the ostensible grounds for gutting content moderation on Twitter, now X—which is also Carlson’s publishing platform of choice. The idea seems to have lingering appeal in the laissez-faire sections of Silicon Valley, notwithstanding hesitant steps the big platforms have made towards better moderation, not all of which have been sustained. It’s also popular among political conservatives angry at what they believe is left-wing bias across major platforms, from news media to Facebook, which they argue should be hosting free speech.

But the wrongheadedness of this idea needs to be called out. The number one reason it’s dangerous is that the creators of information are not all equal players on a level field. Big producers of content, with the resources to shape the information environment through their superior skill, scale and tools, have disproportionate influence. Information in a globally connected environment can be pushed, aggregated and manipulated by the powerful operators.